These experiences predate the anti-Muslim rhetoric that is now being voiced most loudly by GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump -- which makes the physicians' accounts all the more concerning, the study's lead author said Thursday.
"This is significant, and that is before Trump," noted Aasim Padela, an emergency medicine doctor at the University of Chicago.
Hundreds of physicians nationwide were surveyed as part of the research, which was conducted between 2013 and 2014, well before the mass killings that individuals either inspired by or connected to the Islamic State terrorist group carried out recently in Paris and California. In the wake of the San Bernardino attack, with 14 people dead at the hands of a radicalized husband and wife, several Republican presidential candidates have intensified their criticism of Muslims or Islam. This week, Trump called for a "total ban" on Muslims entering the United States.
The 35-year-old Padela, a New York native whose parents are Pakistani, undertook the study because of his personal experiences and similar ones shared by other American Muslim doctors. As long as a decade ago, while he was a resident working in the emergency department at the University of Rochester Medical Center, some patients complained to his supervisors that they "don't want to be taken care of by a terrorist," Padela recalled in an interview. "I had this happen a couple of times," he said.
Despite the latest wave of animosity, his own circle of American Muslim doctors has faced muted reaction; most may be more sheltered from the harsh rhetoric because they are in academia, he said. But he worries that if it continues, some physicians will face greater scrutiny at work and feel forced to leave medicine, depriving patients of culturally sensitive care.
The survey found that 14 percent of doctors said they were experiencing religious discrimination at their current workplace.
"If Muslim physicians feel uncomfortable in the profession because their identity attracts negative experience, then the profession no longer offers a means to live out their faith in service to the profession," he said via email.
Some doctors in private practice say they are shocked by the level of support within the medical community for Trump's proposed ban.
California neurologist Faisal Qazi, 41, started a national campaign to raise money for the victims and families of the San Bernardino massacre after he discovered some were his neighbors. A colleague heard about the fund and became very angry, Qazi said. The surgeon, face flushed, confronted Qazi and told him Trump was right, that '"we should get rid of all the Muslims."
A similar incident took place recently with an older American Muslim physician who has been practicing for 25 years. As he recounted to Qazi, another doctor told him that he shared Trump's views but that the naturalized U.S. citizen was "one of the good ones."
"I have never seen him more worried," Qazi said of the older physician. As for that interaction, he added, "If that's the kind of mentality we're dealing with, it's more dangerous."
The study of American Muslim doctors and workplace discrimination was published this week in AJOB Empirical Bioethics, which is affiliated with the American Journal of Bioethics. It involved a random sampling of members of the Islamic Medical Association of North America. A questionnaire was mailed to 626 doctors, and more than 40 percent completed the survey.
Most respondents were men from South Asia, who immigrated to the United States as adults. Nearly all (89 percent) considered Islam either a very important part of their life or the most important part. Most of the physicians said they prayed five times a day.
Padela, who works on his hospital's Initiative on Islam and Medicine, pointed out that this year is not the first time Republican presidential candidates have used anti-Muslim rhetoric. During the 2012 campaign, Herman Cain talked about initially feeling anxious during his treatment for cancer because one of his surgeons had an Arab name. He was relieved to learn the doctor was a Christian Arab.